When Ayana called the police on Aug. 17, she expected to get help for her brother, a resident of a low-income housing building in Seattle’s Sand Point neighborhood who was in crisis. Instead, what happened was what she later called a “nightmare.”
At around 2 a.m. that day, Ayana, 22, called 911 asking for intervention in a domestic violence situation with her brother Yeshua, who is 28. Yeshua had become increasingly violent toward Ayana and their mother, Keren, who is 56. According to his family members, Yeshua has an undiagnosed severe mental illness.
Yeshua had been chasing his sister through the Solid Ground Brettler Family Place apartment complex when she called the police. She and her mom had been dropping off food for him at the time. However, after Ayana knocked on the door of a neighbor’s house asking for help, he was spooked and returned back to their family’s unit.
By the time police arrived on the scene, 10 to 20 minutes later, Yeshua was already at home. As cops started wrapping the whole area around the apartment with caution tape, Keren offered them her key so they could get inside and apprehend her son. However, she said, they refused because a neighbor who called 911 claimed that Yeshua had a gun.
“They said no, he has a gun, someone called us [and said] he has a gun,” she said. “I was shocked. The situation got worse and worse.”
Hours of terror
As the early morning incident unfolded, more and more officers arrived at the scene, including a K9 unit, an armored truck and the SWAT team. Ayana and Keren lost count of how many personnel were deployed, but they said that it was likely in the dozens. Cops pointed their guns at the front and back doors of the apartment and called on a loudspeaker for Yeshua to surrender, to no avail. Ayana and Keren thought that Yeshua was scared by the overwhelming police presence and that he feared for his life.
“I was scared,” Keren said. “I told the officer maybe he did something, maybe he killed himself inside, I don’t know. Because when you see — over there, over here — people pointing the guns at the door. Maybe he thinks they’re gonna kill him. Plus, he has issues.”
One of the police officers helped calm Keren down, promising that they weren’t going to kill her son. However, as the standoff continued through the night, she and Ayana remained on edge and unable to rest.
They said that, nearly a week after the incident, they still suffered from insomnia.
“They didn’t need that many police officers and the SWAT team just because he didn’t answer the door,” Ayana said.
At around 1 p.m., 11 hours after the initial call, police officers broke one of the windows and detonated a smoke bomb inside the house. Shortly afterward, Yeshua surrendered. Police did not find any firearms on him or in the apartment.
Yeshua was later released and given a court date for Sept. 25. His family had expected the King County jail to evaluate his mental health and refer him to involuntary treatment at a mental health facility. He was issued a no-contact order, meaning that he cannot approach Keren or Ayana for the next five years.
Keren and Ayana recall that, growing up, Yeshua was a kind and affable boy who helped volunteered in the Sand Point community. A model student, he worked hard and got into the University of Nevada, Las Vegas mechanical engineering program.
“He was a very good student; he was very studious. He’d go to the engineering library at night to study for exams,” Ayana said. “He was a role model here. You know the community center over there? He used to be a rec attendant — he would supervise kids. Everybody wanted to follow his footsteps. A lot of kids actually followed his footsteps and now are successful. He used to be very motivated. He used to care about his body. He used to always look good everyday — he wouldn’t go outside without looking good.”
However, things changed when Yeshua was finishing up his degree in 2019. Keren said that one day, Yeshua called her and said he was feeling sick, suspecting that he had been poisoned by fellow students who bullied him. Days after the traumatic incident, he flew back home and decided to switch to Seattle Pacific University. His family members said that he was not his same confident self and started experiencing hallucinations and paranoia.
“I remember one time he was paranoid, he thought somebody was doing something to our wifi or something,” Ayana said.
Yeshua started attending church regularly for the social support and to help ward off fears of witchcraft, Ayana said. He was still his kind self though, helping out fellow congregants.
“He’d go to church all the time,” she said. “He would prostrate while he’d pray, and he’d read the Bible standing up for long hours. And he was so nice. He would do fasts and stuff. And then after the pandemic hit, he changed.”
Keren and Ayana said that during the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, Yeshua’s mental health steadily declined. They also suspected that he might have started using drugs at that time. While he first said he wanted to seek treatment, Yeshua later dodged the question. At first, when his condition was less severe, Keren didn’t want him to go to the doctor because of concerns about cost; Yeshua was uninsured.
Around December 2022, Yeshua started acting violently and making threats toward his mom and sister. Ayana recalled that she didn’t believe that he would act this way until he actually hit her and her mom. The situation got so bad that the two moved to Bothell in May, leaving the home they’d lived in for the past 12 years.
Keren and Ayana affirmed that, despite the painful turn in their relationship with her son, they still loved him and wanted him to get better. The two still regularly drop off groceries for Yeshua at the Sand Point apartment.
For Ayana and Keren, the police call evoked painful memories of a similar incident that happened in the same apartment complex six years earlier.
In June 2017, SPD officers shot and killed Charleena Lyles after she called for assistance with a reported burglary. Lyles was Black, 30 years old and a mother to four children. She had had experience with mental illness.
Ayana and Keren had known Lyles and remembered seeing the yellow caution tape that SPD laid around her apartment after the shooting. When the SWAT team showed up on Aug. 17, they instantly feared that Yeshua, who is a young, Black Ethiopian man with mental illness, could experience the same fate.
“When I saw the caution tape, I was thinking, ‘They [shot him] inside,’” Keren said.
Ayana said that SPD needed more training on how to respond to mental health calls.
Their family’s story also illuminated how systemic failures can force families to involve police, who frequently escalate situations instead of resolving them peacefully.
For months, Ayana had been trying to get her brother into treatment, calling designated crisis responders (DCR). However, every time a DCR arrived, Yeshua refused to be evaluated or did not answer the door. Finally, when a DCR was able to talk to him, they said that his condition didn’t merit involuntary treatment. Ayana said that it would be hard to evaluate Yeshua without spending an extended amount of time with him. In the wake of the Aug. 17 incident, Ayana and Keren are still trying to help Yeshua get into a treatment program.
“It’s difficult seeing him slowly deteriorate,” Ayana said. “It’s very hard to watch. How someone can turn around so quickly because of mental illness is shocking. Sometimes I feel like it’s like a dream.”
Following the SWAT team incident, Solid Ground notified the family that because of a nuisance order, Yeshua would have to leave the complex by Sept. 18. Keren and Ayana fear that he will become homeless if not provided with another housing option.
The names of the family members have been changed due to the sensitive nature of the story.
Read more of the Aug. 30-Sept. 5, 2023 issue.